Welcome to the game: Churning Credit Cards

Stack'o'cards

“This is just my life now.”

After returning from Cuba, Lisa and I got thinking about where our next adventure was going to be to. Of course, we want to do a better job of building wealth, but it sucks to forfeit travel opportunities to do that. If only there were a way to keep on traveling, yet not spend any money… 

I’m not really sure when or how it happened, but I know that I came into contact with an amazing website resource, ThePointsGuy, who led me to embark on a massive self-study project that took hours and days and weeks of learning. By the time I was done, though, I think I had completely figured out my new obsession—credit card churning. The goal is to earn as many credit card points as possible and put those towards traveling to awesome places around the world. I learned a ton about how to master this game, and I want to share those lessons to both help anyone reading this and review myself on how the whole process works.

WARNING: Know what you’re getting into

Before I share, we need to have a talk about something that’s crucial to understanding credit card churning: credit scores 1. Credit scores are magical numbers that basically outline how trustworthy you are to banking and lending institutions. For a long time, the way they determined how trustworthy you are was shrouded in mystery, but in recent years, the formula for how these scores are determined has come out.

How a FICO Score breaks down

How a FICO Score breaks down

At 35%, the most important thing to a credit score is how you handle your debts—if you’re paying off what you owe, you’re going to be ok. The second biggest piece of the pie, at 30%, is how much credit banks have given you, and how much of what they’ve offered to let you borrow you’ve actually borrowed 2. If you can keep these two numbers strong, they can counter-balance the 15% category, Length of Credit History, which we’re going to absolutely murder 3.

That leads us to a few ground rules we must establish before doing anything with credit cards:

  1. Clear the monthly balance. Every month, we’re going to pay off 100% of what we owe. No. Matter. What. If you can’t make that happen, this isn’t a game for you. Moreover, if you’re still dealing with a ton of college debt, you’d be better off knocking that off first before signing up for any cards. Don’t worry—I’ll wait here. Bookmark the page, pay a lot of money to Sallie Mae Freddie Mac Uncle Sam and come back when you’re ready.
  2. Just be cool. We’re going to be talking about spending money on certain cards, and on which card to do what, and so on. This all does not mean you need to do anything different than you typically do. Don’t use a card that rewards going out to eat to go out to eat when you don’t usually go out to eat. Keep your normal spending patterns as you do now—all we’re going to do is be smarter about which piece of plastic you put the bill on.
  3. Make sure it’s worth it.  There are a lot of credit card offers out there, and while they all offer something, those somethings aren’t equal. I recently received an offer for a card that’s selling point was that *gasp!* it’s metal! And black! That was the reason this card was valuable. Really?! The subreddit /r/shittychurning regularly chronicles horrible deals that, if taken, will lead you to give more to the card company than you’d get back. Be smart about what you apply for, then; only apply for “the good stuff”.
  4. Aim to earn more than 1% back. More on this below.
  5. Honor the 5/24. Also more on this below.

Churning 100: Earning points

You probably have a general idea of how point-earning on credit cards work: as you spend more money, you get a certain percentage back on each purchase, and those points can be used on travel, cash-back, gift cards, and lots of other things. 4

Right now, I’m existing solely in the Chase UR points ecosystem, so my goal is to gain as many of those points as I can. Chase points are redeemable for 1¢ on the dollar, so 1,000 points is a measly $10 of cash credit. The first big trick I learned in the churning game, however, is to maximize the amount that you’re earning on purchasing, and that’s where different cards’ “superpowers” come into play. For example:

  • Chase Sapphire ReserveMy current favorite card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, gives me 3x points back on the dollar on any travel purchase I make. A $500 plane ticket, then, earns me 1,500 points on that particular card instead of the standard 500 points. (Also, this card earns 3x on restaurants, so it’s usually the go-to card when we eat out.)
  • Chase Ink PreferredChase’s Ink Preferred business card gives you 3x back on phone and internet purchases, so that’s the smart card to set my Comcast and AT&T bills to work with. I could really juice those earnings with the Ink Cash card, which earns 5x instead of 3x, but I haven’t gotten around to acquiring that one just yet.
  • Chase FreedomChase’s Freedom card has a tricky superpower, where it earns 5x on a rotating quarterly category. This quarter (July-September 2017), Chase gives 5x back on restaurant (and movie purchases), so for the past few months, we’ve been using it over the Sapphire Reserve on going out to eat.
  • Chase Freedom UnlimitedMy Swiss Army Knife card, the Chase Freedom Unlimited, earns a meh-worthy 1.5x, but it earns it on every purchase, regardless of category, so this has become my go-to “Can I do better than 1.5x?” card. For example, nothing in my wallet rewards me better than 1.5x on groceries, so that’s been what we use at Safeway and Trader Joe’s.

As I’m a visual learner, I threw together a chart that gives us the lay of the land on which card to use when:

Chase card superpowers as of 8/2017

Chase card superpowers as of 8/2017

Rule #2 is important to mention here. In playing the churning game, we must remember that we’re not going to alter our spending habits to earn more points—we’re just going to think more advantageously to our regular spending. I was going to buy those tickets to see my in-laws regardless of the card I put them on, but if I’m going to do it anyways, I’m going to maximize the bang for my buck.

Even more importantly, remember Rule #1—I’m not going to outspend the actual money in my checking account. I personally never put more on my card than I can pay at that moment. In fact, if I do make a big purchase like a plane ticket, I’ll usually just begin the transfer from the checking account to the credit card account as soon as the confirmation email comes in. This churning game is a blast, but it’s not so fun that I want to take any actual risks in it. If I follow Rule #1 and Rule #2, I can maximize my rewards and minimize those risks.

Churning 200: Earning bonuses

Earning points on daily purchases is where you’ll use most of the credit card power in the wallet, but it’s not actually where you’ll rake in the greatest rewards. The big-hits of the churning game come from bonuses that come from signing up for cards. Chase offers 50,000 point sign up bonuses for new Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserved cards, and 80,000 for the Chase Ink Preferred business card! It would take a whole lot of spending ($50,000 and $80,000, respectively) to earn that kind of point power, but in an effort to hook you into a new card, they’ve introduced some pretty sweet carrots.

The “easy win”, awesome-to-start-out-with card I’d suggest to just about anybody is Chase’s Sapphire Preferred card:

Your responsibilities Your benefits
$95 annual fee (waived the first year)
Minimum spend requirement (MSR) of $4,000 in the first 3 months
50,000 Chase UR points
2x on all travel and restaurant purchases
Trip cancellation, car rental insurance, roadside assistance, extended warranties, etc.
A special superpower I’ll explain later…

The key things, to me, are making sure that you can spend $4,000 to hit the MSR and pay off that amount. For our family, that was a no-brainer—we went through the minimum at an embarrassingly fast clip and quickly earned our 50,000, thank you very much. For others, that might be a stretch. Follow Rule #2 and only jump on this when you know you’ve got what it takes.

Once you spend money on that card and earn a big ol’ bonus, you’ll be chomping at the bits for when you can sign up for your next 50,000 bonus. 3 rules to note here are that:

  1. Chase only allows you to take on one new card every 30 days, so there is a bit of a built-in wait period.
  2. Chase has a special rule called the 5/24, which means you can actually only sign up for 5 of their cards in a 24 month period, so you have to be strategic about what cards you get when. To stay under Chase’s 5/24, you’re essentially limited to one new card every 5 months. There are some interesting intricacies to this rule, especially as you get deep into 2 years of playing, but we’ll get there when we get there. 5
  3. Chase Sapphire PreferredSay you had a card for a while, cancelled it, and tried to sign up again for the bonus. Is that allowed? YES… Kind of. You CAN receive a bonus on a card twice, but you have to wait 24 months from the time of receiving the bonus until you sign up for the card again. For example, I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred in January of 2016 and earned the reward a month later, in February. I can technically cancel my card after only one year of having it (January 2017), but I can’t sign up for it again until February 2018. Of course, in the meantime, I can churn other cards, earning other points and bonuses, until that time comes up again.

What a deal...Sign-up bonuses are the heavy hitters of the churning world, so you’re going to want to find bonuses that are worth it. Sometimes, that requires a little bit of thinking about the costs vs the benefits. My favorite card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, costs a hefty $450/year to hold; however, that includes a $300 travel voucher that can be used on hotels, flights, Uber/Lyft, and so on, so really, this card costs $150. But do I know that I can make it worth $150/year to hold it? 50,000 points will help, and I get 3x points on travel and restaurants, so it’s a safe bet I’ll come out ahead. The point is, make sure it’s worth it. Recently, someone on the /r/churning sub-Reddit shared an ad that, on opening a new checking account, you would earn a FREE TACO from Rubio’s. Ok… All I’m saying is think about it.

Churning 300: Using points

This is the easiest part—once you’ve earned some points, you can figure out exactly what you want to use them on. Chase’s UR points can be exchanged for 1% cash back, so if you pick up 50,000 points on signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred, enjoy your $500! You can get that sent to you in cash, applied to your account as a statement credit, or sent to you as a gift card from a ton of retailers. Chase Ultimate RewardsFor me, though, the goal is to take those points and to use them for future travel opportunities. And now, we enter the the dope-est part of churning…

See, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card has an additional superpower—points on it can be exchanged for 1.25% on travel, not just the standard 1% you’d get on cash. That means that that nifty 50,000 bonus you earned on signing up for it is worth $500 in cash… Or $625 in travel credit when booking through Chase! And it gets even better—remember my favorite card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve? (This is the $450/year one with the $300 travel credit.) Points transferred to that account are worth a STUPID 1.5% on travel, meaning that the 50,000 points is worth $750!

Combining Chase UR PointsThere’s another fun part to this: you can transfer points between Chase cards, from wherever you earned them to the most advantageous card. So if I earn 5,000 points on my Freedom card, I can use Chase’s system to transfer those to my Preferred card pool; they’re now eligible for the 1.25% travel purchasing power. Better yet, I can transfer bonuses, like my 80,000 I earned from opening a Chase Ink Preferred card, to my Chase Sapphire Reserve card pool, making them worth (80,000 x 1.5%) $1,200! Pretty cool superpower, huh?

What did we learn?

In summary, the Webbs’ gameplan has been to

  1. Open a Chase account with a nifty bonus,
  2. Hit the minimum bar and earn the bonus,
  3. Utilize it advantageously alongside our other cards for different types of purchases to earn at least 1.5% on every purchase,
  4. Funnel all points to our 1.5%-powered Chase Sapphire Reserve card pool, and
  5. Repeat.

If I were new to this whole process, current-Me would suggest to newbie-Me to follow the above gameplan, starting with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, then moving to the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and then to the Chase Ink Preferred 6. Acquiring all those cards will net you 180,000 points, worth $2,700 on Chase’s travel portal. Trans-Atlantic trip, anyone?

All this has cost us is 4 FICO credit points (note: we’re still well-above the “Excellent” credit line) and hours of “stress” for me. 7 And what did we get out of it? Welp, nothing yet… but we’ve got a little sumpin’ sumpin’ in the works—a little sumpin’ sumpin’ that’s going to cost nearly nothin’ nothin’. Stay tuned…

Into the sunset

Notes:

  1. Specifically, for the sake of this post, we’re going to focus on the widely known, respected, and understood FICO credit score.
  2. This is called a credit utilization ratio. If a bank approves you for $10,000 of credit, but you regularly only use $1,000, that show you’re trustworthy.
  3. The key vocabulary word here is Average Age of Account (AAOA). Since we’ll be setting up lots of new accounts and terminating them once they’re no longer benefitting us, that AAOA is going to pull your credit score down. Luckily, it’s not worth a whole lot. The hits that both Lisa and I have taken since we started churning was so small, there’s essentially been no change to our overall credit scores.
  4. Before I started this round of learning about churning, I’d never really considered taking anything other than cash back—cash can be used on airplane tickets, stuff I want to buy, cash in hand, or credit towards the credit card statement. It was only when I found out about a secret advantage of points over cash that I saw truly how awesome this whole game was. More on this under “Using Points“.
  5. Heads up for married couples—you’re both under 5/24 rules, but you can scatter those between you so you’re signing up for cards closer to every 2.5-3 months. The key here is to not sign your partner up as an authorized user or to get them their own card. If I get a new credit card account and sign up my wife for a second card, it counts as a 5/24 hit for BOTH of us. Better to save it for another sign-up.
  6. So this is a business card. I don’t own a business, but I have sold things on eBay and Craigslist before. That actually qualifies me for a business card. Ok then.
  7. Let’s be real—this process has been nothing but thrilling for me. It combines so many things I love: saving money, spreadsheets, calendars, and soon, traveling.
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